​The mantelpiece is an integral part of all but the most contemporary fireplaces, and for centuries we have been using this built-in shelf as a place to show off treasured items. In the past a clock in the middle flanked by porcelain dogs or matching candlesticks might have been the extent of the styling, but today we are free to follow our mantelpiece muse and get creative. These 12 stylish approaches show just how much fun can be had by pepping up your fireplace and making over your mantel.

Abigail Ahern

1. Go large. Small knickknacks can look rather lost and insignificant on a mantelpiece. The solution? Choose chunky, oversized pieces that are guaranteed to make an impact. Here a kind of gothic-meets-pop-art look gives this mantelpiece masses of original style. The hot-pink letters add a zingy focal point against the gray backdrop and prevent the skull and statues from looking too intimidating.

Amory Brown

2. Stick to one material. Choosing a theme for your mantelpiece display is a helpful way to impose some stylistic order. Try picking items made from the same material. Here glass objects of various sizes look fresh and pretty on this mantel, but you could choose to group wooden, ceramic, silver or brightly painted items.

Born & Bred Studio

3. Prop up some art. Play with the traditional idea of hanging a mirror or painting above your mantelpiece; prop an artwork on it instead. It helps if the artwork itself is an irreverent rethink of a celebrated piece — in this case the Mona Lisa got the Marge Simpson treatment!

Ingrid Rasmussen Photography

4. Choose the curated clutter look. There is nothing wrong with taking the “more is more” approach to decorating your mantelpiece, but simply filling the space with objects can lead to a messy, incoherent result. So apply some rigor to your selection. Choose one type of object (vases, candlesticks, pots) and stick to a palette of just a few colors that pair nicely with other furniture and pieces in the room. You will still achieve an abundant and interesting display, but without risking its looking as if you’ve dumped the contents of a garage sale onto your mantelpiece.

Adrienne DeRosa

5. Channel the power of three. Three items are often enough to fill a mantelpiece beautifully. The scale and mix of pieces is up to you. Here a street sign and a vintage mirror stretch across the length, creating a large but unfussy display, while a tiny potted plant provides a central focal point.

sarah & bendrix

6. Or take two. If sticking to one material seems a bit restrictive, expand the theme and include two key ingredients in your mantelpiece display. Here wood and white is the informal theme. Within it everything from a white bird decoration to a wooden shoe is arranged together in a display that looks relaxed and can easily be added to or shuffled.

Bruce Hemming Photography

7. Crowd it with unusual one-offs. Make your mantelpiece display as quirky and unique as possible by adorning it with vintage oddities and secondhand treasures — the more unexpected, the better. From taxidermy birds to junk-shop ceramics, the choice is limitless and the effect powerful.

Hufft Projects

8. Go minimalist. A single item may be enough to set off your mantelpiece. Positioning it off center often works best, to avoid the result’s looking too symmetrical and dull. Here a small portrait gives a focus to the fireplace without fighting with the rustic brick wall behind it.

BAAN design

9. Balance opposite ends. Objects arranged at either end of a mantelpiece create a nice sense of balance and symmetry. This contemporary fireplace is wider on one side, but the firebox puts more visual weight on the left. Three vases at its longer end balance and reflect the asymmetrical design.

Boutique Homes

10. Match it to the room. If the room in which your fireplace stands is designed with a very strong, clear look, keep the mantelpiece display in harmony with this. Here a strictly monochromatic scheme gives this bedroom real drama, and it is reflected in the mantelpiece display — a simple arrangement of two striking candlesticks.

Sims Hilditch

11. Keep it clear. Some mantelpieces, particularly those that belong to really handsome or ornate fireplaces, look great left unadorned. But if that sounds a little too pared down for your tastes, frame the fireplace with decoration by covering the surrounding walls with a patterned paper.

Alexander Waterworth

12. Make it modern rustic. Rather than cut flowers, which cost money and don’t last long, gather branches, sprigs and sticks from the area around your home and use them as informal mantelpiece decorations. This fireplace is in an Italian house, so an olive twig from just outside makes a fitting decoration, but you could use pine-cones, driftwood or sprigs of evergreen plants, such as ivy.